Stefani Stein: Growing a Design Studio While Maintaining a Small Team

Episode 7 October 06, 2023 00:55:49
Stefani Stein: Growing a Design Studio While Maintaining a Small Team
The Interior Collective
Stefani Stein: Growing a Design Studio While Maintaining a Small Team

Oct 06 2023 | 00:55:49


Show Notes

While we often have guests on this show with large teams and multiple departments, the reality is, not every interior designer wants to have a large studio. Remaining small and nimble allows for more creativity as the principal designer, less people management, and a more flexible schedule. Today, we welcome award winning Los Angeles based multidisciplinary designer, Stefani Stein, as we explore the logistics and intentions behind scaling a design studio while maintaining a small team.



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Episode Transcript

Anastasia Casey 00:00:08 Hi, and welcome back to The Interior Collective, a podcast for the business of beautiful living. I'm your host, Anastasia Casey. And today we are digging into how to grow a design studio while maintaining a small team. We often have guests on this show with large teams and multiple departments, but the reality is not every interior designer wants to have a large studio. Remaining as small and nimble as possible allows for more creativity as the principal designer, less people management, and a more flexible schedule. Today we welcome award-winning Los Angeles based multidisciplinary designer Stefani Stein, as we explore the logistics and intentions behind scaling a design studio while maintaining a small team. Hello Stefani, and welcome to the show. It is so fun to catch up with you because gosh, we've been friends for I feel like five years now. We've known each other a while. Stefani Stein 00:01:01 I know. I'm so excited to be here and just chat everything going on, catch up with you. I'm so, I'm such a fan of this podcast and so excited to be here. AC 00:01:12 Well, we're super honored to have you on it, particularly because the most written in questions we get are how do I continue to be an interior designer without hiring 37 people to make it happen? So that's gonna really be the focus of the show. Often here we're talking to designers with big teams and a lot of support. However, you are wildly successful, award-winning, a highly coveted interior designer who has been able to maintain a smaller team. Can you walk us through what your company structure looks like? Who's on the team full-time and what do you regularly outsource, if anything? SS 00:01:52 Absolutely. And I agree with that and it can be a little intimidating when you see some of these super successful larger firms. There's that little voice in your head, you should be doing more or doing bigger, you know, and it's just, I think it's really about doing what feels right for you right now and trying not to let all the information coming at us, right. Social, friends, publications sort of get in your head too much. So for me, having a small team has actually been really integral to how my business has operated, grown. You know, getting clients, all of it in that, when I first started I got pretty big, pretty quick. Like I had like four, not pretty big, but four people right away. And I just felt this huge payroll obligation and I was taking jobs that I, projects that weren't really actually interesting to me because I was so like worried about my responsibility for like some of these people. SS 00:02:53 And inevitably, right, there's turnover in interior design and I just kinda let some positions fade away and then scaled back the jobs I was taking. So I made a concerted decision and for several years only took projects that felt like perfect for me, which is like, I'm sure designers out there know it's really hard to do 'cause you're like, my gosh, am I walking away from, you know, this job, this money, and is everything gonna be okay? But, and I think, you know, many other designers that you've had on your podcast have said something similar that if it's not the right aesthetic or right fit for you, don't do it. Because inevitably, whether it's about the aesthetics or if it's about a personality fit, a client that was like refusing to follow your process, any of those things, that means it's not gonna be successful and it's gonna like if you wanna stay small, you really can't take those 'cause they, they sort of take you outside your wheelhouse, right? They take you outside of like your flow, your structure, and you have to keep things pretty efficient in order for it to work. I didn't really answer your question, <laugh>. AC 00:04:01 No, that, that was a perfect intro. So I heard you say that you kind of let some positions kind of fizzle away that as it happened naturally. What does your team look like right now? SS 00:04:13 Sure. So I have two full-time people. I have a full-time drafts person and a full-time project coordinator. We, we are looking for a design assistant, so maybe I will get some resumes <laugh> once this airs. And those are my two full-time positions. And actually neither of them are local. So that was like another interesting decision, right? Because I think I decided I needed to hire people who were the right fit for my needs, not necessarily like the right fit for being in Los Angeles. And also, you know, everyone has a different management style. My, I'm specific about what I want, but I'm also like a little hands off, right? So it took me a while to figure out that I need to hire more senior people. It's not, you know, entry level is not the right fit for me and I'm, you know, but you pay more, right? So there's a, you know, a give and take with that. And then separately, I have a bookkeeper, I have sort of a business consultant. I have, you know, like freelance, not freelance, but as-built services, right? Those are, I don't, we don't do that in-house. We use like, you know, certified professionals for that. And then a graphic design, which is we could talk about later, which is a little separate. Yeah. AC 00:05:29 Okay. Perfect. So two full-time people. I love that you say you looked beyond just like your local region to hire someone even full-time as you manage things. Uh, I have had the pleasure of working with you and you definitely have a very clear vision of how you want your brand to be portrayed and especially aesthetically what your deliverables look like. Have you found when you looked outside of your direct location, when we talk about budget, did that open up more budget if someone wasn't living specifically in Los Angeles? SS 00:06:02 Like in Los Angeles, AC 00:06:03 Right? Yeah, because it's an expensive place to live, SS 00:06:06 It is, and I think that, you know, I would say one person is definitely, I think a little bit less than what I would pay in Los Angeles. One person's the same and, and one person actually lives in New York, so it's no different <laugh>, right? AC 00:06:21 <laugh>. SS 00:06:21 Um, but also I think it can be. I'm sure that is absolutely something that can happen. I don't know if that's really what's happening for me, I would say. Mm-hmm. AC 00:06:32 <affirmative>. And how did you find those people who weren't local? SS 00:06:36 Through referrals. AC 00:06:36 Oh, great. Yeah. SS 00:06:38 So through referrals, word of mouth, right? Saying, you know, I don't really care where they're located. I don't, I can manage people remote. Sometimes it's, and for me, I like to just, I, I love the creative process. So that's part of it is that I know some people like grow their team delegate to seniors or other team members. And that was something else that I realized early on is that like, that's the part that I don't really wanna step away from. So how do I structure my team so that I'm not bogged down in management and I get to do the part that I enjoy AC 00:07:12 That is absolutely a growing pain that I feel like so many listeners have gone through. But I have gone through, we've actually scaled back our in-office days to literally just twice a month, even though we have a team here in Austin, because so much of the day just ends up being management, when everyone is perfectly capable of managing themselves at home. <laugh>. Well, SS 00:07:34 That's what I think is that if you are hiring someone, right? So this is my like big takeaway for people who have a small team. If you're hiring someone and you don't feel that they can do their job without you sitting right next to them, making sure every step is correct, every step of the way, it's probably not the right person to hire for a small team. Like they should be able to, like you just said, like do their job without you micromanaging everything. AC 00:08:03 And if it's you who doesn't feel like you can have someone do their work without micromanaging them, you might need to also look at at yourself, SS 00:08:14 Yourself, self-reflection for sure. AC 00:08:16 Are you really ready to hire someone? And that's also, SS 00:08:18 Sorry, that's also a different management style, right? Than what I, I would say for sure. Right. I have friends who need the team sitting there next to them all day. And you know, in some ways I think that's more efficient, right? I think just for me it's not the right fit. AC 00:08:33 Yeah, absolutely. So staying small and nimble seems to have been a really conscious decision for you. Can you absolutely expand your strategy and thought process behind that? SS 00:08:46 I think that it was about finding the right clients who were the right fit. And that was just the most important thing to me is I wanted to work with people who, whether it was like a big, big project or a small project, right? Where I felt like it was a good personality fit and like there was something interesting happening aesthetically. And I want, you know, there's a lot of people who just wanna show you a photo and be like, just make this photo and like, that's not something that I enjoy. Right. That I'm sure other people like, oh, that's so fun. No problem. And maybe when we talk about like the scalability and all of those things, part of it is when you are the one doing the creating, you can only do so much at once. And so I think really being selective about the clients, which can be scary, but it, like, it really is, what it boils down to is not taking any projects that you don't wanna do. Like that's the most important part. AC 00:09:40 So I hear that, I agree to it, I subscribe to it. But for someone who hasn't yet been getting the inquiries of projects that they want, yeah, I feel like there's this gray area. Do you have any advice for how you can keep waiting patiently when maybe financially it's tighter than the option to wait? Or how do you make those work? SS 00:10:01 So, you know, that, so I will say that wasn't my exact scenario. I was like really fortunate to get a lot of inquiries early on so I can gonna give what feels like a good way to handle it. But you know what, actually I should say when I first started out there was HomePolish and I did HomePolish as a supplement, which I'm sure you've talked to lots of people who did that <laugh>, you know, like, oh my gosh. But it did, right? When things were slow, you could say, I'll take on more projects. When you were really busy, you just didn't take them. And so that did help in the early days. And I think that for someone where that's not an option right now, I do feel like Zoom consultations, right? The Expert has been just really fantastic. It's such a lovely process, right? SS 00:10:48 Because you're helping people who are just so excited to be there and to be chatting with you. And at the same time it's, you're seeing all these different people, all these different spaces. And it's even interesting to me sometimes on the consultations where I'm like, oh wow, we did accomplish a lot in an hour, you know? But the, so the plus is that the client who maybe wouldn't be able to afford full service design but does need some help, gets the assistance that they need, and then you don't walk away with this giant punch list of action items and like work to do. So it's, I think it's just such a beautiful platform, process, all of it. It's one of those disruptors that really did it without taking advantage of the designer, right? They made it like they, they thought about the designer in it, which I think that some of the other ones have not, AC 00:11:42 Right? They focus so much on the product specifically. Okay, so great. You're on The Expert now. That's so exciting. You're able to have kind of a bucket for that type of client who doesn't necessarily need full comprehensive project management, right. And, and ordering and all of those things, which we'll get into exciting Sure. Options when it comes to e-commerce accessibility for you. But talk to me about what you would describe your signature services as. Is it full service, remodels, new builds, historic renovations? What does that look like? SS 00:12:14 Yeah, so I would say it's full service remodel or renovation. Not always a historic renovation, although we do have this really lovely 1930s tudor right now that is just so dreamy. But yes, I think that my sweet spot is definitely renovations and especially people who want to either bring in character to the home or honor the character or like, you know, sometimes it's, we wanna refresh, but we don't want it to feel as old as it is. But we don't want it to feel like we tried to change what the original home is. So that's a lot of my projects. And then we typically, it's construction as well as furnishings. That's almost always everyone. You know, there's small exceptions that you make and sometimes it's like, this is interesting. I think that I don't need a furnishing space, but they'll love me by the end. We'll get there. <laugh>, AC 00:13:03 Once they see the house finished, they're like, okay, now we gotta make sure that the insides match. SS 00:13:08 Yeah, I mean, but normally you're sort of like as construction's happening, you're doing all your procurement, which we can talk about later. AC 00:13:16 What does your absolute dream project look like? SS 00:13:20 My goodness. Ooh, that's such a good question. I would love to do a hospitality project. I have not done anything in that realm. And I think that would be just so interesting creatively where you have this, you like, it's just so you, there's so many things that you think of that you wanna do that to me, I'm like, that's not really livable in a house, but this is really cool. And I think that getting to experiment and play in that realm as a designer would just be absolutely incredible. Yeah, I think that, and my husband is in the Pacific Northwest or Atlanta a lot for work for extended periods, so sometimes going back and forth gets a little daunting. So I think in my dream scenario, I have like a satellite Atlanta office so that I can like do jobs in both places and it doesn't feel so hectic. <laugh>, AC 00:14:10 That's super fun. I definitely would love to see a Stefani Stein restaurant, a little boutique hotel <laugh>. It's just such an interesting, different, unique problem solving challenge and Absolutely. And you get, like you said, there's iterations of things and materialities that don't necessarily work for home, but would be perfect in a higher traffic area. SS 00:14:32 Exactly. I think it's just really fun. AC 00:14:35 So with your team of your core team of three, how many projects at a time are you typically working at once? And I know that there's big lulls when construction is happening, so like how many are you carrying on the books at once? SS 00:14:49 Our typical project load is four at a time and that's kind of our max I think right now without me adding another team member. And I do have like two other part-time people with, you know, that are sort of separate. But I think that four, just strictly from a design standpoint, four is our sweet spot with this team number. I think we would need to add like a more senior either project manager or a senior designer in order to go above that. AC 00:15:19 Because right now all design concepts are coming out of your brain. SS 00:15:24 Yes and yes. And however I like, I work really hand in hand with the draftswomen. I used to do a lot of the drafting myself and that's been a big, sort of a big shift in how we're structured from to take me out of that, which is mm-hmm. <affirmative> good and bad, right? I'm like, like, well wait, what if we did it this way? And I'm like going in and doing things, but I'm also like, this isn't the best use of my time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Right? And so that's when you, as you're a small team and as you grow being sort of very conscious about like, can someone else do this? Can I just have conversations? Right? And then, so we do like a once a week check-in, like a long zoom. We go over everything we email back and forth during the week and it's, it's been really great so far. AC 00:16:10 That's exciting. One thing I always try to teach everyone at design camp and when we're working with clients one-on-one is that you have to remember that you should be spending the time doing the work that someone is hiring you to do. Right. And in your case, I don't think people are coming to you because they love the renderings and the drafts that you've done. They want the design and they want the concept and they're trusting you to hire someone else to execute those things. SS 00:16:37 Absolutely. I think that they're coming to you because you know how to delegate, right? Just like any, it's any business. Like you have to understand how to delegate best. Right? And so at the same time, clients can't approve a design without those elevations or those renderings. Those are kind of essential. The construction documentation package is like, you know, you've built houses, like those packages are just so, there's so much information that we, the designers create and share for the contractor to know how to execute their job. And that is a very, and that's the part I've never done that part. I like that part. I've always had someone else doing, that's definitely not where I should be spending my time. Yeah, AC 00:17:20 Absolutely. I think the key here is realizing how you should be spending your time. What brings you the most joy and what you're spending your time on. And honestly, in some cases, I mean, I'm sure you're an incredible draftsperson, but is there someone who could be doing it better? Honestly SS 00:17:35 Absolutely, And I'm, I'm good. I, this is very specific to interior designers. I'm really like, I'm fine in model space. I cannot work in paper space at all. It's a disaster. It's like my brain doesn't know what's happening. So <laugh>, so yes. Like if I'm the person doing the exports, a hundred percent is taking me four times as long as someone else. AC 00:17:55 And that's exactly the key is that even if you can execute it just as well as someone that you could bring on professionally with a ton of experience, when you, as the business owner or mm-hmm <affirmative> principal designer have so many other things going on, can you do that as efficiently or as effectively? And oftentimes with those super technical things, the answer is no. SS 00:18:15 Absolutely not. Yeah, absolutely not. And I've always had, that's the thing is that there, like from the beginning, there's always been drafting and bookkeeper for me. Like those are things that even if it was consultants, right? And it was always people who were better than me. So it was, but at the same time it just, what's in your brain sometimes is hard for someone else to emulate. And so, you know, we have a weird process where I have my own layer and if I go in and like, so I'm not messing up what someone else has done, but I can go in and do like, what if we did it like this? And you know, AC 00:18:47 I love that. That's such an excellent tip that it feels applicable to honestly way more than just technic SS 00:18:55 Time programs. Yeah, right. It's so, because in AutoCAD you have layers, right? So I just, there's a layer for me and if I wanna go in and change like a cabinetry detail or what if this edge profile was like this and then I'm not doing it through the whole space. It's like, I would like it like this. And then someone else is carrying that out throughout the rest of the, the relevant room. AC 00:19:14 I love that. Thank you for sharing that. SS 00:19:16 Absolutely. AC 00:19:16 So, okay, let's go to the beginning. Can you walk us through your client onboarding process? I'm so interested in when there's, you know, three core people primarily after someone reaches out to work with you, what are those next steps? SS 00:19:30 Sure. So the first thing is we have, like most designers, we have a, you know, sort of an new client or prospective client questionnaire, whether they do it online or if they wanna talk to someone over the phone who like intakes that information one way or the other, that information is handed to me to review. AC 00:19:51 And how comprehensive is that questionnaire? Are you asking if they like down or down alternative or is it like, tell me about your project SS 00:19:59 It's, it's, you know, we wanna know where they're located, what they think their construction budget is, what they think their furnishings budget is. Is there an architect on board? Have they worked with the designer before? How did they find us? What is the scope of work that they're asking for? Just like, like how do you make a decision at all without that information? And sometimes some people, so in my experience, sometimes some people don't wanna give that information, which in and of itself is a red flag that it's probably not gonna proceed anyway. Oh, AC 00:20:28 Interesting. Okay. Technical question. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, do you charge flat rate hourly or some magical combination of something else? SS 00:20:34 Magical combo for sure. So we, we do hourly during construction phase and different roles have different rates and I think that construction is just really unpredictable. You know, it's one thing when I'm, when clients are 100% following my process and it's my contractor that I work with all the time. Outside of that though, it's just, there's a lot of things that are unpredictable and I feel like hourly is fair for us and fair for the client. AC 00:21:00 That's so true, especially when you're doing remodels. I mean, even with your own contractor and they're following the process perfectly. Like there's a lot of unknowns until you open up walls. SS 00:21:09 You open up walls and you're like, well what is that happening? <laugh>, you know, oh, we can't use this as a plumbing wall, we have to re rethink this. Right? So that goes on. And then we once, so procurement, we handle all the procurement and we have a procurement fee and then furnishing spaces are flat rate plus procurement fee. And for me, because like the furnishing, I understand, right? Like I know I can control how much of our time goes into that, what should happen. But by doing it flat rate, we also, you know, there's a limit to revisions. So our, you know, it's about having a really, you have to have a strong agreement, right? There's a limit to revisions. And if someone wants to see 19 different iterations of one room, right? You're like, that's not part of flat rate, then we start over each time or we go to hourly or maybe we shouldn't be doing this <laugh>. AC 00:22:02 Yeah. Can you share how many revision rounds, we'll call it rounds? Yeah, sure. Do you consider? SS 00:22:11 So my process is we do our initial presentation and then from there we, you know, review everything with the clients. There's a round of revisions that is based on their feedback in that mm-hmm. <affirmative>, right? So, and then on that round of revisions, if there's, they can change up to three things on the next round, right? So if you want more than, let's just say I wanna change the lamp, the chair and the coffee table. If you want more than that, you want a new route, <laugh>, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative> like, so that's sort of for me where, because you know, it can just spiral where people wanna see 20 lamps and yeah, like if that lamp was right, I would've shown it to you <laugh>. But it's also, I think that I, you know, there's, the obstacles are different early on than what they are at the point I'm at now, right? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like that's not really something typically that I experience at this point. <affirmative> and every once in a while you, you misread things and you have a doozy. Right. And I like that happened to me recently. But outside of that, but then I think about the project before that where literally one round of presentation and the only thing changed was a lampshade on a whole house. AC 00:23:18 Amazing. SS 00:23:19 Right. Which is like, which I think is about me being a good listener and clients like trusting me and the process mm-hmm <affirmative>, right? And being good at the, you know, there's homework upfront, discovery is a dialogue. I'm not a mind reader. <laugh>, you know, and so it's about getting that information from the clients and them trusting you enough to be honest about everything. AC 00:23:42 So having a tight team, oh wait, one more question about billing. Sorry, <laugh>. No, no, no, it's okay. When it comes to install, is that hourly or are you flat rate install hourly? SS 00:23:51 Yeah. Yeah, install anything on site is hourly at any phase. All client interactions and site visits are hourly at all phases AC 00:23:59 And including emails. SS 00:24:01 Yeah. AC 00:24:02 Yeah. Perfect SS 00:24:03 Respondents. AC 00:24:04 Yeah. Um, you mentioned that during construction there are different hourly rates. So I just want to clarify, you do charge for your team differently? It's not a flat rate for anybody. SS 00:24:16 No. And I know some people do just the one rate for everyone. I just, you know, there's one rate for me, there's one rate for the draftsperson, there's a different rate for the project coordinator. We have like, you know, sometimes I'm hiring like a PM like on a, like on a per project basis. So there's a rate for them. So, you know, I think it's really, again, that's what's most fair in my mind. It's fair for me and it's fair for the clients. AC 00:24:41 Can I ask where you log that time? Are you using a software? SS 00:24:45 Used to use Harvest. Yeah. Okay, AC 00:24:47 Perfect. SS 00:24:47 We use Harvest and we track our time by role and by like project phase, so everything's super clear. AC 00:24:53 So having a tight team, do you feel like you have a regimented process you follow throughout the entire design project? Or is it more fluid evolving experience for clients because you are so small only taking on your dream projects? SS 00:25:08 I, so I am a little rigid about my process and it both, it, I think that whether I'm big or I'm small, I think that knowing what process works for you and sticking to that process is like one of the most important things. Because clients aren't experts at what they, we do. They might, they wanna do things out of order and you know that like you need to lock down the floor plan before you start doing elevations. So you know, like it doesn't make sense. Then you're gonna duplicate work. And so as much as possible we stick to like, this is phase one, we get this done, then we go to the next phase, we, the jumping back and forth is where the chaos starts. And you don't wanna be constantly in a reactive place. You wanna be sort of leading the process. AC 00:25:58 Do you have any language that you have kind of in your back pocket for when a client starts to push off of that process to guide them gracefully back while feeling like they are still being super well served and heard? SS 00:26:13 Absolutely. So, and it is because sometimes people can't visualize like what's coming next and you know, I think, and we do a lot of zooms and calls with our clients, not everything's like sitting there face to face. And I think that the best way to say it from, in my opinion is, you know, we're more than happy to do some mockups of this now even though it's not finalized. But just, you know, understand that each time we go outside of the process, like that's, there's no way for me to account for that in my estimates. And I think that it's just kind of this little gentle reminder, right? That when they're asking you to do something that you know is gonna co take a lot of extra time that you're, that you're saying it, but you're saying it politely. AC 00:26:58 Okay. Let's talk about procurement and what that process looks like when you are collecting payment from the client, especially since, and we're gonna get into this, you do a lot of custom work. How does that process look? SS 00:27:12 So whether we're doing custom or not custom for procurement, we collect all the funds upfront. So we can't start purchasing until we have received funds and AC 00:27:22 For the entire home or you know, well, SS 00:27:24 Or whatever phase we're at. Right? Okay. Like, so some, like typically for me, construction procurement is happening separately from furniture procurement and maybe furnishings is broken up. Like we're presenting the first floor in one phase, the second floor in another, right? Because sometimes it's a lot for clients to digest. It's not even just about us doing the whole thing is that I think it's easier sometimes for clients to decide on secondary areas when they understand what's happening in the primary areas first. So I'm okay with that being broken up, but it also depends on our workload, right? If we know that we're gonna be in like a really busy phase in like three months on something else, we kind of have to keep that going more quickly. But yeah, so it's about once we've like once we, well first of all, you know this, if you order something, there isn't a deposit like you pay in full at the time you post the order. If something's made to order, yes it's a deposit, sometimes it's deposit basis, but once we've placed the purchase order, we're still obligated for the entire amount. So, you know, if it's approved, that's how it’s done AC 00:28:32 Just wanna reiterate that 'cause at Design Camp, I hear so many designers who only take 50%. SS 00:28:38 I think that's such a huge mistake. AC 00:28:40 It is so wildly like you are being held liable for the kind of money that could lose your hope. You could, you could SS 00:28:50 Like bankrupt you on some of these jobs, right? Right. Like especially you're doing, if you're doing a really big high-end job that's just not like I'm not a bank. Right. And it's also similarly, I don't actually want any client procurement funds that I don't need. Right? So if I'm like, hey, we're not at that phase yet, we're not gonna be doing that yet. Like I don't, I don't wanna hold that money. AC 00:29:12 Right? You want it to be a quick swift transaction money in. Place the orders right away. You mentioned construction procurement and I'd love to expand on that a little bit because I have heard from a lot of designers that usually their contractors handle all of that type of purchasing. Will you just explain what type of items you cover in that? SS 00:29:32 Sure. I think it varies from contractor to contractor. Some contractors have an in-house procurement team, some do not. I think that unless it's like in my experience, if it's not a contractor that has someone who used to be in the design world doing their procurement, like you're absolutely gonna have some items show up incorrect. So Right. So just be prepared for it. Some finishes, some valves, some something will not be ordered because they're not, I don't think used to the detail of the purchase orders that we are. But it varies from project to project. So I'm not gonna say no to a project because the contractor's doing procurement because that's also like, I don't have to do that work. Then there's like in anything that's asked of me for procurement is hourly then. Right? So it's, it's not, it can end up not actually being more efficient but it can go either way. SS 00:30:26 I think that I like working with contractors that let us handle that for, I mean obviously not, we're not buying building materials, right? But door hardware, plumbing fittings, lighting, you know, sometimes some contractors are like, they wanna do surface materials even though we're doing the rest, which is fine with me or my main contractor. He's like, we don't do that and he likes the designer to handle it. It makes his jobs good. Like, 'cause similarly he doesn't wanna have someone on staff for that and like that obligation and add this whole other layer to his company AC 00:30:59 And then have to deal with damages, delays, all of those things. SS 00:31:02 Totally, right. Like that's all part of our process. And we have established receiver relationships. We know like what goes to the receiver, what goes to our office, what goes to the job site. AC 00:31:12 This October we are headed back to the Santa Monica Proper Hotel for Design Camp 2023, join designers from around the world as we go in depth in small group breakout sessions and large keynotes covering topics like systems and processes, design presentations, maximizing profitability, marketing back converts, updated software solutions and so much more. Meet celebrity designers, Bria Hamill, Tangle and Co. And Caitlin Flemming, while we dine al fresco under the Stars design camp is loaded with surprises in a lifetime of friendships. Don't miss our final event of the year. Visit to secure your spot. You mentioned that procurement is a flat fee. Is that a percentage based flat fee or percentage? SS 00:32:00 So, so like the procurement, we would do a percentage. Right? Got it. And then on the flat fee is for designing the furnishing space. AC 00:32:08 Got it. And on procurement, I've heard that percentage is usually around 10 or 12%. Is that kind of in line? SS 00:32:15 No, that's really low. You cannot be profitable at that percentage. AC 00:32:20 Oh, interesting. So is it like, SS 00:32:22 It's like if you talk to a business consultant, it's not possible that's not enough to cover the amount of work that goes into procurement. AC 00:32:27 So is it like double that number? SS 00:32:29 Yeah, I would say that any designer, I know it's the low end is 20, the high end is 35. AC 00:32:36 And is that procurement percentage including the receiving warehouse or is that also separately? SS 00:32:43 No, that is always separate. But it's, I'm talking about a cost plus basis. You might be talking about a different, there's two different ways to do it and I think there's one where it's just a percentage on top of retail or so, but like, like list. So that might be what you're talking about. Got it. Yes. And that percentage sounds correct. Mm-hmm. But when you're doing cost plus, you really need to be 25 to 30 to start actually being profitable. AC 00:33:08 Got it. Yes. The billing schedule that I'm familiar with that I've heard from a few people is that it's retail, what the client is paying plus 10%. SS 00:33:17 Yes. So that's different than ours. We do cost plus and that's when you, I think that you wanted to talk about our procurement software mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So we use Studio Designer. And that's what I learned on. So that's what I've always known. So that's what we use, but it's set up for cost plus. So I think that most designers right, it, it automatically calculates if you're like, I bought this for $20 and I'm gonna mark it up 20%. It's calculating that and it's all there in the system. AC 00:33:46 That is so clear. My husband actually just started a studio designer consulting firm. Oh really? And yes, he did. And so we actually will have an episode this season with him to talk us through all of that. Amazing. But that is crystal clear, but I also have some phone calls to make to make sure these girls I'm thinking of are making the money that they should be SS 00:34:04 <laugh>. Yeah, no, totally. But it, it really, I what you're talking about, I think when you first said it I was like, what? No, <laugh> <laugh>. But I think you're talking about the, I don't know the name of it, but there's a different billing method and I think even in studio you could ask your husband, but I think AC 00:34:18 You can set it up either way. SS 00:34:19 Which way? Yeah. So all my friends do cost plus, so I don't know anyone who does it the way you are talking about, but I think maybe different parts of the country, like different methods. AC 00:34:30 Yeah, like what exactly. When people start either shopping around or have used multiple designers, that's when things kind of start to become a little more regional. Yeah. SS 00:34:37 Perfect. AC 00:34:38 And SS 00:34:38 With cost plus, I mean if you think about it, if I get a, if my markup's 25% that I get a 20% discount, it's basically the same thing as what you're saying <laugh>. AC 00:34:47 Yeah, Totally. Yeah. It's literally just how you're inputting it on the backend. Yeah. So you answered my next question. You use Studio Designer, we have gone through all of the different softwares and we are mm-hmm. <affirmative> back to circling everyone back around to Studio Designer because it is such an effective option, specifically from an accounting purpose. SS 00:35:06 Yeah. Which, um, I think that some of the like designers are visual. I think that studio could use some work on like the views, you know, it's really, you have to jump around a lot. My bookkeeper works on both Studio and Design Manager and I think that it, like the interface, although I heard design managers about to like launch a new platform or something, but the interface on Design Manager, the current one is a little antiquated to my, in my opinion, but you are able to, she's like shown me some things and you are able to see more things in one place in a way that feels logical. Studio is like, you always have to go run a report for everything. And which we're sort of, I have a business consultant who I'm working with who's sort of helping me figure out like how I should be structuring the items, right? The sales items, categories, how I should be structuring the general ledgers and what, what my project coordinator needs to be inputting on every order so that the reports are useful. 'cause there is a lot of information there, but if you're not as your, as you know, from your husband, like if you're not inputting it, you can't really get a meaningful overview of what's happening AC 00:36:14 Or even accurate, even an accurate one. SS 00:36:16 Right. And so that's where, you know, I'm a small business that hasn't been something that I'm able to like pay attention to and stay on top of. And so that's something that's one of, we'll say the downsides, right? And so we're, that's also having someone who can specifically do it. You know, we're coming up with a procedure and they're gonna do it exactly this way, right? And like, and it's clear for everyone. And then some of those reports start to become meaningful. AC 00:36:39 Real quick, because I know you are so specific with your processes, how do you, if you have this new procedure that you're doing in the studio, do you write out those instructions, screen record? What is like your training? SS 00:36:54 Yeah, it's a little bit of both. And what we're doing right now is we're sort of talking it through and then as I am, you know, myself or the project, uh, or the business consultant, I mean it as we're kind of going over it with the project coordinator, she's documenting everything and then I'm going and like reading it and seeing if I, and, and to be honest, like, I don't know, like the codes page of studio, right? Like I don't know what should be there. That's not for me to speak to. It's more like, but on the front end of like, this is, you know, you reach out to the vendor and you do this and you, you know, like those sort of things. Yes, of course. 'cause at some point we all, most of us, not all of us, but most of us did that part ourselves. Yeah. Um, while we were learning, right? Yeah. <laugh> AC 00:37:41 One thing I will say we use Loom l-o-o-m to Oh okay. Screen record. And they just did a new release where when you screen record and you're talking through whatever it is you're doing, it automatically transcribes it and it gives you a CliffNotes version right below you And it does it all automatically. And so you'll have like, that's such a good tip, the bullet points already pulled out and then you can go in and be like, oh, this transcribed wonky or whatever. But the transcription is like very on par and it'll pull any of the URLs that you had open while screen recording and it'll all go inside. So this SS 00:38:18 Is game changing. Thank you. As, as I'm like trying to, you know, manage all our projects and work with someone to get some operational things in place. It's that, that sounds essential. Thank you. AC 00:38:29 <laugh>. Yeah, we just hired a new summer intern, or I'm sorry, she'll be a fall intern and like as I go through my to-do list of things I had to do, do, anyway, I'm just recording it on Loom. So then I've knocked out a project that I had to do and I have a tutorial done SS 00:38:41 And you've shown someone else how to do it. Yep. Genius. You're so genius. AC 00:38:44 I love it. So yeah, check out Loom <laugh>. Okay, so speaking of processes, how much of your process is automated, if any, and I'm talking invoicing weekly check-in emails, that initial questionnaire. SS 00:38:58 So you know what, there's something that I didn't say about the beginning process. Could I tell you about it? And it's just, um, check, AC 00:39:04 You can interject it now. <laugh>, sorry, SS 00:39:06 I'm so sorry. I thought of it while we were talking and you were giving me this hot tip about Loom at like, part of my discovery process is sending a studio introduction document, which is based on a template I bought from you <laugh> many years ago. Right. We've obviously tweaked like the wording, the process, you know, the formatting over the years, but it was such a great starting point to put that together. And I think that is such an informative and visual package, right? That to represent your brand, but to also make it clear if you're full service, right? That and like procurement is a heavy part of your process, that you're, you're setting that from the outset. And so if someone's just looking for someone to like tell them about paint colors or do, you know, light decorating for me, I steer those people to The Expert, but I think that your packages that you've made are such an excellent starting point, right? Everyone should be tweaking it right to their own process and presentation and whatnot. But just as a foundation where you don't have to mull that over and it helps you deliver like clearly. Mm-hmm. AC 00:40:15 <affirmative>, I thank you so much for saying that stuff. <laugh>, <laugh>, we'll link 'em in the show notes for you so you can go purchase them. But I think the investment guide, which is what you call, SS 00:40:26 Oh, I call this yes. The studio introduction document, right? It's what makes sense for us <laugh>, AC 00:40:32 I think what makes that so important and people might skip over it and feel like it's not necessary, especially if they've already had an inquiry. They're like, I just need to get them to sign a contract. Is that at the end of the day, that level of professionalism and getting ahead of questions is what will justify your rates versus Sally Sues. It's what's going to make you shine above anyone else they're shopping or someone they've worked in the past or really just make that yes. That much easier. SS 00:41:01 I agree completely. And it also just, I think sets the stage that this isn't just like we're shopping for pillows because so many isn't. People don't understand Right. What really goes into it. So you're sort of setting that like you're, you're, you're giving the correct, I don't know what word I'm trying to say <laugh>, AC 00:41:21 But yes, you're setting the stage for how SS 00:41:24 Yes, you're setting the stage for what's gonna happen AC 00:41:26 From not just an investment standpoint of like, oh my gosh, look at all that is going into this. But also from a service standpoint of someone really understanding, wow, there's an incredible value in this. Yes, there is way more that I'll be charged for, but look at all that they're doing for me that I won't have to do. SS 00:41:42 And one, I don't know if it was in yours or if it's a tweak, but one thing that I think is like really helpful for clients is we have a, like a little screenshot, a PDF of say some of our drawings from a construction set, like side by side next to the photo of it finished so that people really understand like, we give this and that's how it looks like that like we give X and that's how it looks like Y at the end <laugh>, AC 00:42:09 Right? You get this output because we did this input. SS 00:42:12 Exactly. And I think that like, just doing that straight away makes, I think you're just setting the tone. AC 00:42:19 And I think what you said about you have tweaked it and revised it so many times from when you bought it a gajillion years ago is so important. You need to remember that as your process changes, those client basing documents need to be updated too. Because I have gotten myself in a bind when we changed our process and instead of wire framing out an entire website, we're actually doing PDF mockups. And then someone was like, well, where's my page with just lines on it? And I'm like, well, here's your page with the finished page and it's because I hadn't updated my investment guide. And that was the documentation they were referring to, SS 00:42:53 Which you're, you're correct. There's something on not, I have the, with the studio introduction document mm-hmm. <affirmative> and then proposal. We do a proposal that way. And then there's like a welcome guide mm-hmm. <affirmative> also that we use and we, you know, there's, I think there's something in our welcome guide that is not in our process anymore. And I, the client asked me about it and I was like, what are we talking about <laugh>? AC 00:43:13 Yeah. You're like, we don't do that. Like, SS 00:43:14 Well first of all, thank you. I'm glad you read <laugh> what I sent. AC 00:43:18 Here's an amended version. <laugh>. SS 00:43:19 Yeah. So, right. Which I mean it happens. That's just, you know, another, a big team like listening to your podcast with Amber, right? <laugh> and like yeah, sure. Like if you're on her team, someone's on top of that <laugh> AC 00:43:33 One really good hack that saved my butt after that mistake was made is instead of attaching a PDF, always linking to the PDF in a Google drive. Because when you do notice something that needs to be updated, it automatically updates that link and your client is always looking at the most current version. SS 00:43:50 We do that too, except through Dropbox. But yes, we always link to it rather than Right. 'cause as long as you leave it in the same place and keep the name the same, the link is that. AC 00:44:00 Perfect. Okay. So let's talk about fun stuff. Yes. In addition to the design studio, you also have an amazing wallpaper and furnishings collection called August Abode. Tell us about the product line, what makes it so unique and what can we buy from you and where do we buy it? SS 00:44:18 First of all, thank you so very much. I appreciate it and I'm glad you know about August Abode that makes me really happy. <laugh> August Abode is such a just labor of love. It's such a fun, creative process. It, as you've talked about, we do a lot of custom in our projects and over the years I was just like, what? Like some of these really make sense as a collection, first of all. And then separately from that wallpaper came about because I had something in my head that I couldn't find. Right. There's, which I think is just the natural evolution of someone creative, right? I had something in my head, I couldn't find it, so I figured out how to make it and I was like, this is a fun hobby. And you know, of course I've now turned it into like three jobs, so my husband is like, maybe no more hobbies. <laugh> <laugh>. But yeah, it just, it just came about is the best way to say that and or to explain that it, it was a natural evolution, but then it, it also got to a point where I was like, this can't just be this little like side thing. And I hired a brand consultant to really help me think through what the message was, the image, like what we were about, which was so invaluable. Absolutely. And I worked with Sean from the culture creative on that. But yeah, so it's wallpaper and furnishings AC 00:45:37 And where can we buy it? SS 00:45:39 Well, mostly we sell directly to the trade and we sell the furniture. Some of the furniture is available on first dibs as well. But really exciting, we're about to launch August Abode through The Expert. So I'm really, really excited about that. It's our first direct to consumer really and I just, I can't wait. AC 00:45:57 That is so exciting. And I'm sure that'll be out by the time this episode airs. So we will have it linked to the expert showroom in the show notes. So you can browse and source and order samples, but as a trade member you can go to, is that correct? SS 00:46:12 Correct. AC 00:46:13 Yep. And open up your trade account there with Stefani at August Abode. So how did, sorry, we're gonna skip that part. We kind of already answered that. Okay. <laugh>. So your time feels particularly precious between both businesses. How, how do you decide what projects both client projects and product projects mm-hmm. <affirmative> are the best use of your time? SS 00:46:39 Yeah, so I think that one thing that's been nice, because as we've talked about, I am a little specific about the projects I take on, is that sometimes there might be a lull and when there's that lull, that's the perfect time for me to work on product development. And so I kind of have something to fill those voids that as long as you are, you know, structuring your billing correctly, you, you can take those. Maybe you have two or three months where you're like in between and if you're small you can, like, that's how I sort of focus on that and delineate, or sometimes we're, you know, like the fun thing about having a wallpaper line is that, you know, there's a client and they're like, well I love this, but could we do it in a different color? And I'm like, sure, let's create something new for you. SS 00:47:24 Or they have, you know, a favorite color and I'm like, or a favorite, you know, something which, you know, I think one of our patterns came about because a client's favorite color was teal and we created something for her and then that's like one part of our collection. And so it's kind of just a fun, it's a fun way to just really make everything bespoke for the clients. But then also, you know, and not everything that you do, you're like, oh, that makes sense for other people, but sometimes it does. And like, why not incorporate it if it's part of what makes sense for the brand? Right. Which is what I really worked on with Sean and it was really helpful. AC 00:48:00 Do you feel like developing products and having August Abode has contributed to the heightened success that you've experienced as a smaller designer? Like does it help legitimize you, has it helped the studio in ways or do you feel like they're super separate and people don't necessarily see externally the correlation? SS 00:48:23 You know, I don't know if I know the answer to that to be honest. I don't know if I've thought about it <laugh> the people, like I don't, so the thing is, is August Abode, like the fact that it's anything is kind of amazing to me because I'm, as you know, I'm not the best at doing social. So I don't know how to answer <laugh>. SS 00:48:47 Do you wanna, should we talk about maybe re I don't know, rephrase, but for my brain, <laugh>. AC 00:48:51 <laugh>, okay. Yes. So did you say it was Sean, is that who you said you worked with? Sean. SS 00:48:56 Sean, yeah. AC 00:48:57 Okay. So do you feel as a smaller studio, after having worked with Sean, your business consultant, that having your own product line, August Abode has contributed or have you seen that help funnel better more projects to Stefani Stein, the design firm? Or do you feel like they live in two totally separate worlds? SS 00:49:21 I think they live in two totally separate worlds. And that's because my primary client base for August Abode is designers. Right. I, it's not really direct to consumers. I mean it could be, but it's not where my audience is, I don't think. Right. And it's also all the pieces are bench made, you know, if there's a customization, we do that. So it's, everything's made to order, you know, we think of 'em as future heirlooms. Right. So just the sort of, they're substantial, right? They're made in Los Angeles by local artisans, which I think that in and of itself is something that's more of an appeal to typically a designer. Right. Then not all consumers understand that delineate. AC 00:50:04 Yeah. Right. That difference. Definitely. Okay. To those who are listening who want to keep their design practice small mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what advice do you have to make that feasible with all of this pressure out there to just grow, grow, grow, write 27 books, be on Netflix, <laugh>, you know, SS 00:50:27 I mean, you know, it, it's, it can be daunting. And so I will just say like anyone, I look at sometimes what other people are doing and accomplishing and I'm like, oh my goodness. Like I'm, you know, I'm not there. Like, what's going on? And actually early on someone gave me a really great piece of advice, which is kind of separate from your question, but I think it's relevant, is that, you know, it's really easy to compare yourself to some of these other people, but you're, sometimes you're looking at someone who's been in business 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, and you've been in business two years, five years, seven years. Right? So you can't put that pressure on yourself because that's not, they didn't just get there day one. I mean, there's, listen, we there, there's some unicorns out there, <laugh>, but in general, right? Typically. But I think it, you know, it's hard to sort of take a step back and be okay with what's working for you right now. Not what everyone else at least puts out that things are happening. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Right? Because as much as you know, the curated moment in life is not always reality. Right. And so I think just mentally for your mental health, that's important to keep in mind AC 00:51:42 When we're talking about comparing to someone who's been in business for two, three times as long as we have. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, where do you see yourself and Stefani Stein in 10 years? What does that 10 year look like? SS 00:51:56 That is such a good question. And in 10 years I think that I see my studio doing more distance design projects, as we talked about earlier. I think I would like to be more dynamic on that front. And I think that's the big thing in my head right now is that there in 10 years that I'm hoping that there's a satellite office and we're doing more South and East coast projects and it feels more, a little bit, well, a little bit easier on me and like my personal life, right. To have two home bases. AC 00:52:28 Okay. And almost last question, second to last question. As you look back on your career since opening your business and your decision to remain small and not have a huge payroll mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what do you feel has been like the biggest asset or like the biggest gift from that decision? SS 00:52:48 The biggest thing is creative freedom, right? Like you're taking projects that really, and I know like we've said, other designers have talked about this, but that really represent you and feel like the right thing to you. I think that inevitably, success will come from that, right? Authentic. And it's, you are gonna do your best work when you like the creative and you like the client. So inevitably those projects will be better. AC 00:53:16 So as always, I like to finish out the show with some new exciting news. We already heard that you're gonna be able to shop August Abode on The Expert showroom. Do you have any new product launches or special projects rolling out soon? SS 00:53:31 So I recently participated in a new show through the Magnolia Network called Design Defined. It's gonna be airing on Max and Discovery plus starting September 1st. And it's just really exciting. It's this mix of interior designers and actually historians talking about different genres of design, the origins, the history, the current iterations, and each episode focuses on a different genre. AC 00:54:00 That is so exciting. I love hearing the history behind design of just like everything else in life, the more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes. So I will absolutely be binging this. I cannot wait to follow along on Discovery and HBO Max. SS 00:54:17 Yes, exactly. AC 00:54:19 Stefani, this was SS 00:54:20 Thank you so much. AC 00:54:21 Was so wonderful to catch up with you. SS 00:54:25 I agree we needed to catch up and this was the perfect time to do it. AC 00:54:29 I know we have so much to talk about offline. We gotta talk about August Abode SS 00:54:32 We need to schedule a separate little like connection. AC 00:54:35 But thank you for being so open for sharing so much with our listeners. This was super valuable 'cause there are so many designers whose dreams are just to continue to have a studio with them and one or two other people or maybe just them. So thank you for being so candid. SS 00:54:50 That’s okay, right? <laugh>, I think owning that and it's okay if that's what you want. AC 00:54:54 Well, thank you so much. I will talk to you soon and have a great day. SS 00:54:58 Thanou for having me. Have a wonderful day. AC 00:55:02 Thank you so much for listening to today's episode with Stefani Stein. You can follow along with Stefani @stefanisteinla on Instagram, as well as her incredible wallpaper and furnishings collection at August Abode. Book a call with Stefani on The Expert and now shop August Abode on the Expert showroom. As well as always, your reviews and your listens and your shares mean so much to us. This is such a passion project and I'm working really hard to make sure we can keep it commercial free. So please be sure to share with your friends and leave a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube as well. Until next week, I'm Anastasia Casey and this is The Interior Collective. --

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